‘The City’s Not Seeing It’: Chicago Residents Weigh In On Mayor Lightfoot’s 2021 Budget Plan

People’s Budget Chicago
Residents of the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side participate in the “Budget Game,” in which the group decides how much the city should spend on education, housing, infrastructure, policing and other services. Courtesy of Chicago United for Equity
People’s Budget Chicago
Residents of the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side participate in the “Budget Game,” in which the group decides how much the city should spend on education, housing, infrastructure, policing and other services. Courtesy of Chicago United for Equity

‘The City’s Not Seeing It’: Chicago Residents Weigh In On Mayor Lightfoot’s 2021 Budget Plan

If a city’s budget reflects its priorities, Niketa Brar says Chicago’s priorities are off.

Brar, the executive director of the nonprofit group Chicago United for Equity (CUE), says the way the city is spending its money does not reflect what communities want: less police and more investment in housing, health and education.

“The way that we’ve always been funding the city of Chicago is only going to get us the same thing we’ve been getting, which is not enough for our communities,” Brar said.

On Oct. 21, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released her 2021 budget proposal. Since then, the Chicago City Council has been holding public hearings on the 600-plus-page budget, and aldermen will propose amendments and vote on it in the coming weeks.

Part of the problem with the budget, Brar says, is the process. “The budgeting process is politics as usual,” she says. “There’s nothing about this budget process that we’ve seen in the Lightfoot administration that is fundamentally different, in the way they make allocations, … than the Daley era.”

To combat what she called an opaque, inflexible budgeting process where “everyday people” don’t have a voice, Brar said CUE launched a campaign called the People’s Budget Chicago.

The group set off on a bus tour in early fall, held community “budget parties,” and created an online survey asking Chicagoans to imagine a city budget of their own. (The website is still currently accepting responses).

In particular, CUE focused on some of the most disinvested communities in Chicago, especially on the South and West sides, holding gatherings in neighborhoods like Austin, Englewood and Humboldt Park.

Says Brar, “Our goal in this is to make sure that everyday people in the neighborhoods that have actually experienced the greatest level of historic disinvestment are the ones who have the greatest insight and ability to engage in the discussions that are happening between the mayor’s initial proposal of the budget and the final passed budget.”

During the bus tour, CUE asked residents one question: “What do our communities need to be safe and thriving?” Participants also played the “Budget Game,” where community members decided together how much money they would spend on various city services, including education, housing, infrastructure and policing.

CUE’s facilitators then revealed to participants how much the city spent on those categories during the 2020 budget year.

Last week in a Facebook Live event, the group released the findings from the bus tour, and compared those figures with those reflected in Lightfoot’s 2021 proposed budget.

The results are stark: Most of the community members with whom CUE engaged on the South and West sides of Chicago said they wanted the city to spend more on public health, housing resources and education. For every $100 the city spends, these residents wanted only $7 to go for police and police accountability. That’s compared to the nearly $32 per every $100 to be spent in Lightfoot’s budget proposal, according to CUE’s calculations.

People's Budget Chicago 2021 graphic
While police and infrastructure are the leading spending categories in Chicago’s proposed 2021 budget, residents who participated in People’s Budget Chicago preferred health and housing as the leading budget priorities, according to Chicago United for Equity. Courtesy of Chicago United for Equity
For its part, the city of Chicago engaged communities in discussions about next year’s balance sheet. Budget Director Susie Park says the city held virtual town halls, community meetings and even an online survey that collected nearly 40,000 responses — almost five times last year’s total.

Most of the responses, however, came from the North Side, the Northwest Side and the Loop; not many from Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.

Park says the city trained “budget ambassadors” to do outreach to those neighborhoods, asked aldermen to get the word out, and printed surveys in six different languages.

“We tried to get the word out the best we could so that people could be engaged from all parts of the city,” Park said.

Even with fewer Black and Latino communities responding to the survey, most respondents called for moving money from the police to fund other services, according to the budget office’s analysis of the survey data. In fact, 87% of the city’s respondents said funds should be reallocated from police services to meet other needs, like public health, community services and infrastructure.

According to Park, the mayor’s 2021 budget proposal takes that feedback — for less police, more human services — into account.

“I think this budget does do that,” Park said, citing the reduction in personnel vacancies for the Chicago Police Department, as well as “investments” in housing, mental health and violence prevention. She also touted the city’s proposed “co-responder” pilot — where other personnel, not police officers, are deployed in certain emergencies, like mental health crises, for example.

Park acknowledged the challenge of creating a balanced budget in the COVID-19 era. “What’s happening for 2021 is a $1.2 billion gap in the midst of a pandemic, and everything else that’s happened in 2020,” she said. “I think even with that, we tried to carve out investments and prioritize those things that we have heard from our residents are important to them.”

She also said bringing more resources to public health, housing and education won’t happen overnight.

“Realistically, this is going to take time, you know, I think this is not something that, you know, it’s going to flip in a year,” Park said. “I think these investments … we need time for these to take root.”

For Emony Tate, a West Side resident who participated in CUE’s discussions, those answers from the city are not good enough.

“The city’s not seeing it,” she said. “They’re not putting the money where we need it to be.”

But Tate also says the People’s Budget is about something bigger than Mayor Lightfoot or next year’s balance sheet.

“She may not listen to us right now, but that’s OK, because there are that many more people who are aware of the budget, that many more people that are aware of how it works and what it looks like,” she said. “We’re going to act on this now because I’m tired of her and her shenanigans.”

Tate urged Chicagoans to call their aldermen and share their thoughts on the mayor’s budget proposal. After all, she said, city officials work for the people — and not the other way around.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.